Manchester, 2020. City of Blades
Someone posted a picture of a Madame Tussaud’s display of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby on Twitter. They explained that it looked like ‘the classic Fall gig.’ It was very funny, but within months Mark E. Smith of The Fall was dead, a premonition from the House of Wax Equations. Then images of E. Smith began to appear all over the walls, and not just in Prestwich where he had lived. I had been walking the city with a camera for a few weeks before the post. I was concerned about what photographic practices should be doing now, shedding the indulgence and producing hard, angry work.
Enough of the psychogeographic play.[i] I took an old digital compact with a Leica lens and set the white balance to the hardest black and white contrast. I took a low memory card so I got only ten images before having to empty it, I had to edit on the go or go back home. Old school technology plus a contemporary attitude. Let’s make E. Smith, the last Manchester psychogeographer.
I had been taking a different route through the city for some time. I travel regularly between Piccadilly and Victoria Stations. The back streets in the Northern Quarter – the hipster part of the city – were slowly being overtaken, sandblasted, covered in the usual Farrow & Ball colours, that blue, that green, that grey that looks like undercoat, but costs a fortune.
What was happening was similar to what happened to Soho after the war: As the demand for space intensified the back streets were bought up and commercialized; although it was clear that some expensive residences were being created too.
The back streets stopped being back streets. Now, in Soho, there are no real back streets, only front streets. Perhaps in ten years the same will be said of this part of Manchester. The brothels might retain, as they have in Soho, a leering tourist intrigue, the old sewing shop names may remain on a new hipster bar, the gap between the purpose and the title creating an ironic frisson for the terminally vacuous.
What Neil Smith called ‘revanchism’ – from the old wild west in America, the rush to conquer new territory – was happening in Manchester. As London sank under its own financial algorithms the buy-to-let market rushed to Manchester. Prices soared as the homeless lived in tents. Favela sized encampments sprang up at various places in the city.
At Manchester Jazz Festival In St. Anne’s Square, glasses of Prosecco were being drunk in view of the homeless camp, as Manchester City Council worked elsewhere on an injunction to remove them from the surface of this consumerist space. The sick, bleak irony of a ban on tents in a city centre now full of them – and serving expensive food and drink – is only one of many in Manchester.
This is in many ways a city that must be read through its contradictions. The late Rosemary Mellor called it a ‘hypocritical city’ just after the millennium.
The dreams of family – accessible through the rent or purchase of particular properties in certain locations, through the acquisition of a narrow band of branded commodities – were pasted up as usual, but they had begun to look like quaint aspirations from another time. Perhaps the only people who now lived that dream were the marketeers who designed the posters: The white, heteronormative family expressed through infantilised clichés; this family were traipsing up the country out of London looking for the thing they had lost down there. But market logic was coming with them. The I Love MCR signs stood for a city united against the sick intolerance that had slaughtered innocent youngsters in a horrific attack at the Manchester Arena. But as I discussed with Maureen Ward, the same logic underpins the sense of Manchester as a resilient city, it can be seen in its sense of pride too. The resistance to the Arena Bombing in favour of unity is 100% admirable, but the form it takes tells us other things about the city too. Here we see the logic of what became known as ‘Manchester Capitalism’: If we pull together we do so in a place of savage circumstance; we do so to get by, to survive, not to criticise the logic of the going order.
And that order is currently capitalist, or it will not be. The co-opting of the I Love MCR slogan was very similar to Manchester’s emotive city symbol of a worker bee. But a CRESC/LSE Public Interest Report in 2016 suggested that the bee might be more appropriately replaced with an image of a lift in some bland, private residential new build block. Because Manchester’s only industry was now property for the middle classes and the elites. The CRESC/LSE researchers called it a ‘monoculture’. But the worker bee is actually very appropriate: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps it says; be self-made or be undone, nobody is going to save you. Buy a new shirt, get out there and work, or die in a doorway. The ‘I heart MCR’ slogan and the bee colludes with this attitude. It is the brooms clearing away the damage after the riots. It is as infantile in its simplicity as the dreams on the billboards. But capitalism is not the only paradigm…
It doesn’t take any skill or knowledge to find the necessary flipside to this fantasy. ‘Necessary’ because the excluded must be present for the spoils to be rich enough for the included to include themselves in the game. Theo Reeves-Evison, in his paper, ‘After Transgression – Ethics Under a Different Master’, discusses Lacan via Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, how there is always something left over from the circuits of power, a remainder that cannot be re-absorbed. I’m sure that FUCKING HATRED TO CREATE MORE isn’t quite what he had in mind, but it certainly doesn’t stand apart from his subject. FUCKING HATRED TO CREATE MORE isn’t terrifying. It isn’t the enemy, it isn’t the enemy enough. FUCKING HATRED TO CREATE MORE takes itself away to corners such as these to eat itself and its own. FUCKING HATRED TO CREATE MORE does not take itself to the elite boltholes to ‘pour gasoline down your chimneys’, ‘blow up your galleries’, ‘burn down your editorial offices’, ‘sink your sailboats and launches’, ‘poison your Afghans and poodles’ and that’s before we even get to the really bad things Rexroth wanted to do. ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’. Me too, Kenneth, me too.
As I walked around the city I began to see myself as a tiny insect on a person in a therapy session. Manchester is like a human in analysis. All the stories it tells itself are covers for other things, and those cover stories are sometimes the way into the real story. But eventually, exasperatingly, the root of the problem is never reached. The analyst feels like he has to move onto another person, perhaps the father or mother of the analysand – the real person, not just the way they manifest in the present – and then the analyst wakes up and the ancestor is waiting on the couch in the other room…
I had been crawling through the city hive for years. After the IRA bomb in 1996, I had walked the redeveloped city with a pre-bomb map. Note where the mock-Tudor building has been moved 200 meters to one side and preserved, note where the tatty stallholders have been pushed out of the city center to accommodate branded chain stores. Note where the public has slowly shifted to private. The Free Trade Hall ended its life as a place where private bodies make themselves radically public – changing history as they do it – to a place where public bodies make themselves expensively private. This, if anything, is Manchester’s real story in microcosm.
But the fabulations spiral out of this sick patient’s mouth: That the city is more creative, more friendly, more egalitarian, more ethnically mixed and hybrid and more radical than other cities. To get to the roots of these fevered delusions one simply needs to follow the patient and observe it being the opposite of all its declarations in the therapy room. Look at its abject life in the streets, the stories are merely phantastical compensations for that life.
The stories the city tells itself are cracked with contradictions. Here there is a way into what lies below the bling surface. The dialectic moves via the tensions in the sheer contradiction. Recently, a Manchester music map was presented which displayed a vastly whitened picture of Manchester music. The mainstream story was always the Hacienda, the Hacienda as The White City, obliterating black music at Sankeys Soap, bhangra, Kaliphz, and The Ruthless Rap Assassins.
The only way Hulme is ever remembered is for white post-punks in The Crescents and The Factory or Russell Club on Royce Road: This is Hulme we are talking about, Hulme and Moss Side: completely buried in the light. The anomalies that prove the rule are there, ‘Guy Called Gerald! Love that tune!’
Similarly, the curry mile has been morphing into a post-Arab Spring strip for a long time. These histories are not just buried in the past but in the present. Like any good analyst, we need to read Manchester’s scripts and Manchester’s scripts are not the same thing as Manchester’s reality. The script and the reality have a pirouetting, mocking relationship. This goes for the whole country as much as it does for Manchester.
The contested narrative about the working classes being responsible for the Brexit vote roll across the screen as I type. The East Midlands as Brexit territory and the Midlands themselves as a real place of economic decline. There is work going back to the 1960s on these regions, ethnic tension lines through time, to Handsworth and on… To Powell’s evil comments on Wolverhampton…
Paul Gilroy’s work on earlier riots in Britain that centered on issues of policing and the race is crucial, and it is important to side strongly with his critiques of leftwing perspectives which fail to break out of their trance-like obsession with capitalism.
MAN DEM A GWARN
Gilroy’s critique of the ‘interpretative frame’ is crucial to revisit now. This default interpretative frame – or the script – reproduces pathologizing criminal representations of black youth, but it also lacks any complexity. For instance, in the 1980s ‘it couldn’t imagine that victims of racism might be racist themselves…’ The ‘interpretative frame’ changes, as does racism, morphing into newer, more virulent strains, like a kind of cultural super-flu, but the left need to examine their interpretative frame once more.
Revisiting Paul Gilroy’s ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’, published in The Socialist Register in 1982, a year after the 1981 riots in Britain, is crucial to this work of reframing. Gilroy described the ‘potent imagery of youthful black criminals stalking derelict inner-city streets where the law-abiding are afraid to walk after sunset’ and how this ‘has been fundamental to the popularisation of increasingly repressive criminal justice and welfare state policies.’
We can now add to this the rightwing spectre of ‘the radicalized’, the lurking jihadi, an explosive body belt strapped to him at all times. One way in which the last decade presents only difference and blinding glare is in the evidence of a white supposedly leftwing middle class and their nauseating testimonies to being ‘radical’ as almost a form of leisure, almost as a form of cultural capital, and on the opposite side of the break of ‘radicalization’ as an imposed badge of stigma for non-white subjects.
One can also see the left taking this radicalization at face value, rather than seeing it as subject with a hard core of horrible truth, with a vast affective cloud around it, that the nation is under attack and ‘they’ want to destroy ‘our’ values and culture.
In 1982 this meant the constructed tabloid of black criminality, an ‘enemy within’ to add to the other internal enemies of trade unionism and socialism. Now and in 2011 this means an enemy within plugged into an enemy without, as well as the threat of an enemy without, which in 1982 was the Irish, rather than Isis.
Paul Gilroy discussed the riots of 1981 and the policing in Britain that contributed to the riots, as it did in 2011. Gilroy explained how a colonial and other relationship and conflict in Ireland was framing policing on British streets. Right now, the Isis breakup and the British intelligence focus on their atrocities cannot be good news for young black and Asian youth. Yet these dialectics are absent from the left, as always. They live in their own script.
The 2011 Tottenham riots were sparked after the shooting of Mark Duggan. Police were watching him as they suspected he might be preparing for a revenge killing. The riots being described as shopping inverted or middle-class protests is largely a confusion about what happens when chain lightning occurs, or when fires spread from the point and purpose of their origin. That purpose may be, after all, in another time and place, to keep us warm. Outside the point of origin, they are described in other ways.
THE SOLIDARITY OF THE SHAKEN
The centre of power of the Tottenham riots, from which all powers flow, is the shooting. It is an intensity, as is the response, in the burning of a police car. From here we see a series of further intensities. This centre of power may dilute when away from its origin, but it still structures in its weaker form, away from the bloody centre.
The centre of intensity is the shooting of Mark Duggan. But the real lineage and connection is the way in which power flows from this intensity, right out to the margins. PC Blakelock dead in the foyer of the building Duggan later hung out in front of: This is a real connection; a deep historical conjuncture that involves slavery and the overseer and horrific vengeance. This is where historical lineages are important, not in some abstract, connect-the-dots, infantile leftwing colouring book of a photograph of a protest in 1933 that looks a little bit like a protest in 2013.
The Duggan family and campaign for justice assumes this lineage between PC Blakelock and Mark Duggan as a fundamental part of its explanation. It is yet another flashpoint in a slow war taking place across generations. It resembles Sicilian vengeance, yet between state actors, citizens and police.
The intensities in a network of power relations all over the island called Britain momentarily fed back and shocked those who ordinarily control the power in the network. The initial spark is triggered by the shooting. I am clear that this is not just arbitrary. Being black and placed in the underclasses in Britain makes you the most stigmatised human subject on the island.
According to Inquest, since 1990 over 1,500 people have died in police custody in the UK. Inquest explain that:
‘…a disproportionate number of those who die in or following police custody following the use of force are from black and minority ethnic communities… institutional racism has been a contributory factor. Whilst the number of deaths involving the use of force by the police is a small proportion of the total number of deaths in custody, these deaths have often been the most controversial. Since 1990, there have been 9 unlawful killing verdicts returned by juries at inquests into deaths involving the police and 1 unlawful killing verdict recorded by a public inquiry, none of which has yet resulted in a successful prosecution.’
But once the spark is triggered, all of the resentments, bitterness and traumas enacted by the power network on a day-to-day basis – joblessness, the lack of meaning, the fragmentation of community, the unaffordable consumer dead zone – back up and feed back, momentarily short-circuiting the usual power relations.
In the north of England, full of ‘wayward’ former-industrial subjects now only tenuously linked to the interests of The City and congealing wealth in and around the southeast, we do have a further dialectic of metropole and colony. The crash of 2008 is tangled up in this picture, but the way in which leftwing perspectives over-privilege that story, actively constructing Marxist analysis of a very particular sort, is still a problem, as it was in 1982 for Paul Gilroy:
‘left-wing writers have tended to ignore the well-documented abuse of the black communities
by the police which stretches back to the beginnings of post-war settlement in sufficient volume
to have made a considerable impact on their critical view of the police. This history not only
shows the manner in which police violate the letter and the spirit of the law in their day to day
dealings with blacks.’
Gilroy describes these police counter-insurgency techniques and policies: ‘The continuing war in the six counties of Northern Ireland has had profound effects on the police service on the mainland.’ The parallel between this and the current context of police dealing with the collapse of the line between war and non-war, as predicted by Eric Hobsbawm, as the Isis fighters pass through completely ineffective filters in Syria to inflict acts of violence in mainland Europe and Britain, is perhaps the next conjunctural moment to consider, in terms of how it will play out at the horrible centres of power.
FUCKING HATRED TO CREATE MORE
The old colonial relationships are never far away. The spoils of the world turned into symbolic value and salted away by the trillions. We are still living in that, all of us.
But even Benjamin said that at some point you have to stop saying and start showing.
– City J m ’ –
– Longsigh Parad se Ta e A Y –
You could see it all coming years ago, oddly in Bradford, the most backward about coming forward which was actually the future of the going backwards all along.
2011 was the centre of the storm in negative. The dead eye, the middle, but a centre of chaos around which only inertia swirls. A larger set of ecological concerns can also be glimpsed here, as the neoliberal compact of deregulated capitalism and a more regulated population continues unchallenged, and the weather turns, and the power cuts become more frequent. E.P. Thompson’s thoughts about history in 1980, during a moment also experiencing powercuts, are worth repeating here:
‘…it is never safe to assume that any of our history is altogether dead. It is more often lying
there, as a form of stored cultural energy. The instant daily energy of the contingent dazzles
us with its brightness. What passes on the daily screen is so distracting, the presence of the
status quo is so palpable, that it is difficult to believe that any other form of energy exists. But
this instant energy must be reproduced every moment as it is consumed; it can never be held
in store. Let the power be cut off for a while, then we become aware of other and older reserves
of energy glowing all around us, just as, when the street lights are dowsed, we become aware of
the stars’ (p.75).
The final question is still echoed in the name of a group of contemporary Russian artists, also struggling with issues of state power and capital, protest and culture: Chto Delat, or ‘what is to be done?’ A similar British organisation, the Deterritorial Support Group (DSG), published a poster just after the riots. Its slogan claimed that ‘the post-political = the most political’.
Bradbury & Hanson (2015) Precarious Passages 002 at https://manchesterleftwriters.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/pp002.pdf
CRESC/LSE (2016) Public Interest Report on Manchester. Deterritorial Support Group (DSG) https://deterritorialsupportgroup.wordpress.com/
Gilroy, Paul (1982) ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’ in Socialist Register. London. Inquest: https://www.inquest.org.uk/deaths-in-policecustody
Keith, Michael (2017) Interview with the author.
Missac, Pierre (1995) Walter Benjamin’s Passages. MIT Press.
Peck & Ward (eds 2001) City of Revolution. Manchester University Press.
Reeves-Evison, Theo (2016) After Transgression – Ethics Under a Different Master, conference paper from the author.
Rexroth, Kenneth (1988 ) ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ on Kenneth Rexroth & Lawrence Ferlinghetti with The Cellar Jazz Quintet, Poetry Readings In The Cellar. Fantasy LP reissue.
Thompson, E.P. (1980) Writing by Candlelight. London: Merlin.
[i] Mark Rainey and I had formed the Materialist Psychogeographic Affiliation in 2008. Phil Smith characterised us as miserable puritans for demanding politics with our psychogeography. This has since made it into MA theses and other places, repeated verbatim, that the Materialist Psychogeographic Affiliation were
joyless militants. Yet we had gone for a full day of cocktail psychogeography, ending up at The Modern. When Rainey and I were looking for a way of characterising what had happened to culture in Manchester since Urbis closed, we were struggling with our term ‘degentrification’, and never satisfactorily explained what that was. It struck us when walking around the National Football Museum, inside the old Urbis building, that ‘Blackpoolification’ characterised
it best, and could be seen strongly in Beetham Tower, particularly in the bar on Floor 23, with its Stag ‘do’s’ and Hen Parties. Nobody but Mark and I ever went to a single MPA event, another fact Phil Smith wants to be hidden, the fact that we won’t collude with the prevailing trend of starting tiny groups that look bigger than they are from the outside. Posturing, indulgent psychogeography must end.
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